RHI inquiry ‘will not be completed within six months’, says chairman

A public inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme will not be able to complete its work within the six-month time frame, its chairman has said.

Retired appeal court judge Sir Patrick Coghlin said while he understood that politicians and the public were anxious for the inquiry to complete its work as soon as possible, he was unable, at this stage, to indicate how long it would take.

Sinn Féin's Mairtin O Muilleoir instigated a public inquiry into the scandal when he was finance minister and said it would be appropriate for it to report within six months.

However, Sir Patrick said: "At present I can say that it will not be possible to report within six months.

"What I can assure you of is that our work will be done as efficiently as possible, and it will be done properly."

He also ruled out any possibility of a preliminary report saying any preliminary conclusions would be based on incomplete information and might have to be changed.

"It would also have the potential to be unfair to those who may be involved before the inquiry," he added.

Sinn Féin has repeatedly insisted that it will not support DUP leader Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland's first minister until the inquiry reports. This has added further complication to the attempts to restore power-sharing at Stormont.

Mrs Foster has said she will not allow Sinn Féin to dictate who the DUP nominates to any post.

The RHI inquiry was set up after it emerged that the green energy scheme was approximately £490m over budget.

The scheme was intended to increase the creation of heat from renewable sources.

However, businesses have been receiving more in subsidies than they are paying for renewable fuel and the scheme became very oversubscribed.

The fallout from the scandal resulted in the resignation of Sinn Féin's deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, the collapse of Stormont's institutions and the calling of a snap election on 2 March.

Sir Patrick said the inquiry team there is a huge amount of material to be obtained and considered before the team can start the public hearings.He said that he agreed to take on the role of chairman on the promise of complete independence.

Sir Patrick added: "This will be an inquisitorial process, designed to establish the facts. It is not an adversarial trial and has no power to determine any person's criminal or civil liability.

"The RHI inquiry team is determined that it will get to the truth of the matters it is investigating, and will do so as quickly as it possibly can."

A preliminary public hearing is due to be held next month.